SAT Thresholds and Student Success

Study reveals minimum SAT requirements that push students toward the two-year sector may hinder their success at earning four-year degrees.

March 4, 2015

For those students on the cusp of meeting minimum SAT requirements to enter college, where they choose to enroll could determine their chance of eventually earning a bachelor's degree.

Researchers from the College Board and Harvard University's Kennedy School released a paper last month describing how students who are drawn out of four-year institutions to the two-year sector -- due to minimum thresholds for SAT scores -- have lower bachelor's degree completion rates than those who attend four-year universities. The study, which the National Bureau of Economic Research published, can be found here.

The researchers examined SAT scores and completion rates within Georgia’s state university system, which uses a minimum SAT score threshold for first-year admission. They also examined other college systems that do not publicize minimum thresholds. Small differences in SAT scores can impact students' enrollment choices and, subsequently, their completion rates for bachelor’s degrees, according to the study. Two-year colleges in Georgia tend to have lower SAT score requirements.

“We believe that there are numerous challenges that institutions across the country face which make it difficult for students who start at two-year colleges to successfully transfer to four-year colleges and attain a bachelor’s degree,” said Jonathan Smith, an associate policy research scientist at the College Board who coauthored the study.

The issue had a larger impact on low-income students. Enrollment in a four-year college increased the likelihood of achieving a bachelor's degree for low-income students by 50 percentage points and by 13 percentage points for wealthier students. 

“Students who start at two-year colleges also face structural problems within the higher education system,” Smith said. “For example, improvements could be made to articulation agreements that make it easier for students to see sufficient value to transfer.”

The study highlights another issue in the debate to offer free community college tuition in an effort to produce a more skilled and employable workforce with less student debt. 

“Lowering the price of community college may improve college enrollment and degree completion for students who would not otherwise have attended college,” the study says. “By changing the relative price of the two- and four-year sectors, such a proposal may, however, actually lower degree completion rates for students drawn out of the four-year and into the two-year sectors.” 


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